University of New Mexico Political Science Professor Timothy Krebs is spreading his expertise on urban politics.
Krebs has just been featured in the Los Angeles Times, his ‘hometown’ paper, after being asked to compose an op-ed on the latest L.A. City Council scandal.
This controversy centered around leaked audio that revealed racist comments and unfair redistricting plans, and caused the city councilor at the heart of the scandal to resign from her position.
It’s a situation involving public trust and government accountability which has major implications not just in The City of Angels, but in cities big and small across the country.
“This controversy fit well with what I study, and ties into my broader research agenda,” Krebs said. “It's fun to do this kind of writing.”
There are multiple dimensions to Krebs’s evaluation, but at the core of it is the need to reform political institutions to deepen local democracy by enhancing the connection between voters and local elected officials, improving accountability and restoring trust.
Local institutional reform refers to efforts to improve how government entities like city councils, mayors, and public agencies function. The end goal of reform is to enhance representation, responsiveness, and accountability to the public.
“It's about institutions–the underlying thing is how do they reform their institutions to get a better, cleaner, more ethical form of government,” he said.
Although it does not involve corruption, Krebs is currently working with his colleague Associate Professor Michael Rocca on research that sheds light on New Mexico’s efforts to modernize its state legislature. That work could lead to better representation and policy responsiveness.
“In both cases, we’re really just talking about how do you reform institutions to get different outcomes,” he said. “Whether it’s representational outcomes, policy outcomes, or just governance, how do we do things better?”
This need for reform oftentimes comes in situations where there is a lack of oversight and scrutiny for those in positions of power and responsibility. Solutions rely heavily on the presence of media or vocal citizens.
“If you’re inclined to lie and do corrupt things, it’s a little easier if you think no one’s looking,” Krebs said.
In the case of the L.A. City Council, in a city of nearly 4 million, there’s something to be said about finding out about this incident, had the contentious audio not been leaked online, and recorded in the first place.
“It can be kind of overlooked by the people. You got these massive districts and you’ve got all this other stuff going on in the city,” he said. “How could anybody have enough time to focus on city politics, city governments? So, it does fly under the radar.”
Still, that release showed a reason for citizens to be concerned. Krebs said their discussions raised a whole bunch of questions about how the city government is providing equal representation.
The outrage and the news coverage led to resignations and should generate a deeper and lasting focus on institutional reform.
“Whether it's big or small, if people aren't paying attention and if people in the government feel like they're really under the radar and nobody is paying attention, and they want to do corrupt things, that enables them,” he said.
Not every community is so lucky to have media watchdog papers like the L.A. Times. In fact, a recent study shows at least 30 newspapers closed or merged in April and May 2020. In addition, dozens switched to just digital formats, leading to thousands of journalists being furloughed or laid off.
Beyond that timeline, since 2005, the country has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers and could lose a third by 2025.
Another report found many communities which lost newspapers did not get replacements. Northwestern researchers estimate 70 million residents — or a fifth of the country’s population — either living in an area with no local news organizations, or one at risk, with only one local news outlet.
“In a lot of places all across the country the presence of media to cover city, county-level, even state-level politics has really atrophied over time and that's a problem for democracy,” Krebs said.
He believes New Mexico media do have that watchful eye which is so important for communities. Yet because of a lack of resources, so many cities and towns don’t have a print media presence, which Krebs says harms everyone when there is no knowledge of what the government closest to them is doing.
“People like to bad mouth the press and media, but where else do we get information on this? Are people without a local newspaper presence going to spend their free time monitoring city or county-level politics?” No, they're not–they get their information from the local paper, the local broadcast affiliates,” he said.
Krebs said while this op-ed was within his current area of research, his focus may expand towards highlighting and analyzing government corruption.
“Maybe this will play some small role in influencing the discussion. Hopefully they can set an example for how to redesign their institutions to limit corruption and scandal and promote good governance,” he said.
You can read the full op-ed and learn more about the scandal by heading to the L.A. Times’s website.